“B” does not stand for “bad” but for “Not ‘A'”. These movies came out of the era when it was typical to go to the movies and get a double feature. Yes! Instead of an hour of ads for junk food, liposuction and whiter teeth followed by thirty minutes of previews and one movie, your movie ticket brought you news or cartoons, sometimes both, and two movies. The A-movie being big name stars and directors, often big budget, sometimes epic, the “big draw”, the “glitzy”. The B-movie was the low-budget second feature. Sometimes these were surprise “hits” and went on to have a big following; sometimes they seemed to drop off the surface of the earth until television gained popularity, most homes had a TV set and stations picked these movies up for “a song” where they captured hearts, mind, imaginations, or even later became cult classics. B-movies were also often the gateway or proving ground for upcoming new talent. As Chris Nashawaty, movie critic for Entertainment Weekly and contributor to Huffington Post, likes to remind us some heavy hitters got their start on these movies, take a look at this lineup that got their start thanks to Roger Corman “King of the B-movie”: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Sylvester Stallone, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, James Cameron, Sandra Bullock…
What do I look for in a B-sci-fi? Well, for starters black and white is preferable; electronic music such as that produced by a Theremin is a plus, big angled or arched block titles and credits fly in over the sky. The story includes manned flight to outer space, alien flight to earth, monsters created by mutations as a result of atomic testing, monsters long asleep awakened by atomic testing or monsters created by the enhanced power of our own minds and a group of scientists and military teamed up–one among them is female.
I love these movies. Some of them are bad, but delightfully so. Some of them stand out for the creativity and effectiveness of their low-budget special effects…simple solutions that carried a big impact. Some of them have good stories, compelling ideas, important messages, fine acting. Some of them are just pure entertainment.
Look at Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People” (Val Lewton, Producer), 1942. One could argue that this is more supernatural or horror genre but I include it here because. Like many “B” movies this film was shot extremely quickly–18 days! It was originally panned by critics, but not viewers. In fact it stayed in theaters for so long that some critics went back for a second look and turned in about-face positive reviews. The budget was prohibitively low, they relied on reuse of sets from other movies. Nevertheless, this is one of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Essentials: “Moody and stylish, Cat People made the most of its limited B-movie budget to create a first rate psychological thriller that relied on suggestion rather than overt special effects.” This and other B-movies showed a certain respect for viewers “relying on the power of suggestion and the limitless human imagination to conjure up the worst kinds of horrors.” What happened with Tourneur? He went on to direct Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer, Rhonda Fleming in probably the seminal film noir film “Out of the Past” 1947.
Gordon Douglas’s “Them!”, 1954 is really interesting and re-watchable on many levels. Intriguing opening where a young girl is wandering, catatonic, alone in the desert. She is spotted by law enforcement in a helicopter and picked up by troopers on the ground. You have a mystery transitioning to science fiction to a man hunt, rather ant hunt in the LA storm drains. There is even some humor that works its way in while still carrying the story along. Good cast including Edmund Gwenn, James Whitmore, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Fess Parker. Joan Weldon played the lone woman amongst the scientists, law and military men–she plays a scientist, a quite capable one, a daughter and of course, a love interest. It was one of the first of its genre to look at the unknown results of atomic tests. “Them!” Was an Oscar nominee for its special effects.
“Forbidden Planet”, 1956, directed by Fred M. Wilcox. Well, we have Robby the Robot (film debut), Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Earl Holliman, James Drury. Oh and Costume Design: Edith Head and Moss Mabry. Based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, space travel, humor, one young woman amongst a heap of men, a mystery, and the most deadly creature: one fabricated out of our own mind–at least the mind of Dr. Morbius. Gene Roddenberry reportedly credits this film with inspiring “Star Trek”. The soundtrack was groundbreaking use of electronic music by avant-garde electronic music creators Louis and Bebe Barron. Awesome opening titles and credits, the title in huge block arched letters on the ends of a spray of light rays, same large block font arched across the sky with stars winking in the background. This movie has earned its place in the National Film Registry.
“The Day the Earth Stood Still”, I’m talking the genuine article from 1951 directed by none other than Robert Wise with Michael Rennie as Klaatu…I’m sorry, but why remake this?…and Keanu Reeves as Klaatu? Don’t get me started…The real thing also starred Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe Sam Jaffe. This 1951 film won a Golden Globe Award for Best Film Promoting International Understanding and truly stands the test of time, accept no dull substitutes and if you’ve only seen the remake, don’t judge the original and shun it–give it a try. Critics comments on the remake used words like “dull” and suggested that just because the words “stood still” appeared in the title didn’t mean the movie had to. This movie, the 1951 original, has thought-provoking messages the world still needs to heed, carries an almost Hitchcockian “wrong man” element in the way Klaatu is first captured, then later pursued carries an alien-human love interest. Good story, well told.
How about just plain fun? Ray Kellogg’s “The Killer Shrews”, 1959. Killer shrews played by coon dogs in shrew make up. This was a small regional film out of Texas which gained not only national distribution, but international as well and was surprisingly popular and yes, it is just great fun.
I’ll close with this line from Roger Corman’s “Attack of the Crab Monsters”, 1957: “Once they were men; now they are land crabs.” Classic.